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In Chicago strike, teachers draw a line on education reform (+video)

A key question in Chicago's first teacher strike in a generation is whether teachers will accept new rules on education reform issues ranging from teacher evaluations to seniority.

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Performance-based teacher evaluations have been a contentious issue in many states and districts. Use of student test results to help measure teacher quality was heavily encouraged with the federal Race to the Top Fund, and is one of the fastest-moving and most controversial of current reforms.

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In Illinois, a new state law has mandated a teacher-evaluation system which relies in part on student growth on test scores, which alarms teachers unions, who fear that teachers will be fired for factors beyond their control. Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard says that the new evaluation system “was not developed to be a hammer,” but rather to help teachers improve – but that’s not the way many teachers see it. The union claims that the proposed system could result in 6,000 teachers losing their jobs in the first few years of the program – a figure the district vigorously disputes.

Another dispute has to do with job security and teacher “recall” – specifically whether laid-off teachers will have the right to be the first hired back once the city is hiring again.

The city has made some concessions on that issue already, offering to put teachers in a reassigned teacher pool for five months, or giving some teachers recall rights for a year, depending on the reason they were laid off, such as school closings, school turnaround efforts, or other reasons. But the mayor has said he needs to give principals at new schools the chance to hire the teachers they want, not just former CPS teachers who lost their jobs.

“I see this as one local union trying to dig in its heels [against] any major changes,” says Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, Calif., a frequent union critic and advocate of increased accountability for teachers. “My own view is that it’s not in the interest of unions to do this.”

But with the standoff in Chicago just taking shape, it was unclear on Monday who was gaining the upper hand – and in the event the strike goes on for any length of time, Chicagoans may give the blame to the mayor.

“People tend to see teacher strikes more through the lens of their child’s teacher,” says Mr. Knowles of the University of Chicago.

And some observers around the country are wondering whether Emanuel, President Obama's former chief of staff, miscalculated just how far he could push the union.

A state law pushed through the legislature last year required 75 percent agreement by union members to get strike authorization – a bar that almost everyone thought was unattainable. Instead, the CTU got more than 90 percent of its members to authorize a strike in June.

Emanuel also pushed heavily for a longer school day and year (Chicago’s have traditionally been among the shortest in the nation) and angered many teachers over his efforts to push it through without their support, to force teachers to work longer hours without increased pay, and to bypass the union by getting teachers at individual schools to waive the contract.

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